Thursday, April 18, 2013

American Shaolin

by Matthew Polly

As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies.  After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu.  This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, without an introduction or appointment, and ask to sign up for kungfu classes at the legendary temple – but that is exactly what he did.  Arriving in Beijing, he discovers that even the Chinese are not sure if Shaolin still exists, but he presses on anyway, and to his credit, he manages to arrive.  Not understanding the Chinese tradition of haggling (or extorting the foreigner), Polly agrees to an outrageous price to be taught kungfu at Shaolin, and his journey begins.

The account of Polly’s time in Shaolin is both hilarious and informative; it’s a coming-of-age story blended with a travelers-abroad tale.  Polly experiences all the shocks that China gives the Western traveler (I was interested to see that he describes his personality as splitting in two, an American Matthew Polly and the dopey, grinning Chinese version, always struggling to process what was going on – a phenomenon similar to that described by Peter Hessler in River Town; he also describes the same resentful, helpless feeling in the face of emotionless, unspeaking, staring crowds), but takes them in stride.  Eventually he is quite at home in Shaolin, distinguishes himself in kungfu tournaments, meets a few wastrel and pretender Westerners who follow in his footsteps, and even does the unthinkable: he dates a Chinese woman.  Polly’s memoir is a terrific read, but it’s also valuable in two main ways.  One, it documents the training process and some outstanding martial arts techniques studied at Shaolin, such as the Iron Forearm or Iron Head or Iron Dong (they all involve focusing qi through breathing and then punishing the specified body part daily until it is as tough as steel), which are fascinating.  Two, in addition to all the cultural mores that Polly diligently records (the little rituals of polite language that I find enthralling), because Polly revisits Shaolin ten years later, he is able to document how China has changed – not just in the ease of transport or shopping opportunities, but the emerging confidence and higher expectations of the Chinese people.  It’s an insightful, first-rate memoir.

five stars

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